Turn on short final

Let’s cut right to the chase: there is a strong case to be made that many base-to-final accidents may have as a significant factor the pilot’s fear of a runway overshoot, fearing that any runway overshoot can only be disastrous. However, if pilots have flown even one deliberate runway overshoot and seen that the real issue is instead fear of the unknown, then just one five minute traffic pattern with a deliberate runway overshoot has the potential to significantly reduce loss of control accidents. After all, go arounds are routinely taught to reduce fear of the unknown, so why not runway overshoots? One university flight department is currently working to implement deliberate runway overshoots into its pre-solo curriculum.

Where did that come from?

This all started with the EAA Founder’s Innovation Prize contest, whose first year was 2016. The background research involved was analysis in great detail of 551 NTSB reports of homebuilt aircraft, sometimes reviewing them three or more times, plus supporting information from the docket and other sources. That in turn led to in-flight exercises to familiarize pilots with sight pictures and sensations outside of normal middle of the envelope flight.

Stall from cockpit

Lack of information probably isn’t the issue.

Then came a breakthrough. One of the subject pilots severely botched a low speed steep turn and there was digital flight data of the event, thanks to the glass cockpit in the RV-9A. Based on that event, I hypothesized that loss of control in a base-to-final turn was not a problem of lack of information, but rather of not adequately processing all the information already available. That in turn led to the theory of cognitive availability, suspecting that the most effective remedy to loss of control was not teaching technique—which is already well covered—but exposing pilots to sensations and out the windshield pictures without being distracted by watching instruments, so that the pilots would remain cognitively available to process the required information in stressful, unfamiliar situations.

That in turn led to yet another pass through the data and the discovery that not all stall/spins were in fact stall/spins, but some were low speed spirals. But why?

In the development of the Expanded Envelope Exercises®, subject pilots, including retired airline pilots and very senior ex-military test pilots, gave useful information with their body language and facial expressions. On those flights, I didn’t describe the exercises until just before we flew them. The body language when I announced that we were going to deliberately fly through the final approach path spoke volumes.

There was also one very recent flight in which I misjudged the tailwind on base and was overshooting final myself. I could not believe how strong the temptation was to tighten up the turn and not overshoot. Marveling at my own psychology, I chose to overshoot the turn by one runway width rather than tighten it up excessively and unnecessarily. It was amazing that even with all of the research I’ve done and all the times I’ve taught the deliberate overshoot, I myself was still susceptible to very strong pressures not to overshoot. The law of primacy at work?

Possible hypotheses

Eventually, there were three possible reasons why pilots might screw up the base to final turn, either in alignment or in pitch:

  1. Pilots had a false fear of a runway overshoot. One brand new private pilot even said that he was afraid of a stall/spin if he overshot the runway.
  2. Pilots were distracted by spending too much attention focusing on runway alignment and were cognitively unavailable to pay attention to pitch and airspeed.
  3. Basic poor piloting technique. This hypothesis didn’t gain traction as pilots normally make turns acceptably.

This leaves Hypotheses 1 and 2. There’s no real way of knowing the psychology of a pilot in a fatal accident, but these two hypotheses seem plausible. And Hypothesis 1 has a trivial solution—go out and try it!

The exercise

First, observe that turning final late has the exact same aerodynamics as turning final at the correct time. The only differences are the psychological aspects and the need to maybe turn a bit more than 90 degrees. Then again, in a traffic pattern with a tailwind on base, the turn to final will be more than 90 degrees anyway. In other words, there is no extra risk to this exercise, aerodynamically.

Here’s the descriptor: Fly base leg to intercept the final approach leg at 500 feet or higher (the same altitude as turns around a point). Do not turn final until crossing the extended runway centerline. Using your normal bank angle, turn final to fly parallel to the extended runway centerline. Then, using the same technique used for S-turns on final, gradually and gracefully align with the runway centerline, and land normally.

Some will suggest that on any runway overshoot, the only acceptable option is to immediately go around. While there may be merit to that argument in real world operations, especially for pilots with limited experience or in very challenging conditions, this exercise is a learning experience, to see the sight picture and to feel the emotions. Doing an early go around while training will compromise that learning experience.

Four ways to get into trouble

Turn on short final

Tempting to tighten up the turn, but don’t do it!

Analysis of the NSTB reports, flight tests and other sources indicate four ways to get into trouble turning base to final. Although the accident mechanisms differ, all four seem to be susceptible to either Hypothesis 1 or 2 as major factors.

  1. Low speed spiral: too much bank angle with not enough back pressure to keep the nose from dropping, possibly leading to an extreme unusual attitude.
  2. Aggravated low speed spiral: same as above, but the pilot mistakes the low speed spiral for a spin entry and adds forward stick, aggravating the unusual attitude.
  3. Spin out the bottom: pilot applies too much rudder to align with the runway while adding excessive back pressure, resulting in a spin out the bottom, as it used to be called.
  4. Spin over the top: pilot banks too much, uses elevator to tighten the turn and rudder to keep the nose up, resulting in a spin over the top, as it used to be called.

This exercise will probably not solve all base to final loss of control situations, but it will definitely solve some. Given that the cost is only one lap around the pattern and the benefit is the possibility of saving lives, this exercise has much to commend it.

Addendum: what about stall after takeoff?

When somebody takes the time to thoroughly analyze stalls after takeoff, they are going to find that existing statistics are at best misleading and well worth a quite colorful description.

For example, in the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) Loss of Control Working Group’s Approach and Landing & Departure and Enroute from October 29, 2014, they studied 85 NTSB reports, of which 29 were experimental, amateur built. I classified eight of those 29 events as primarily traffic pattern events—only one was on takeoff/go around, and that was a pitch up on go around. I classified seven as pilot skills events, two of those being first flights in a homebuilt, one pilot was known to be scared of the plane, and two pilots were unlicensed. Those five egregious events were not called out into a separate category as would have been appropriate. By the way, the GAJSC used this data set to recommend angle of attack indicators, a recommendation that is at best a stretch.

I also generated a set of 40 “stall after takeoff” events, according to the NTSB classification and again, those were experimental, amateur built aircraft. A half dozen of those were STOL aircraft that crashed immediately after takeoff, one of those being an instructor giving dual. He had rudder pedals on his side, but not a control stick. Eight or so of the “stall after takeoff” were more properly classified as failure to achieve sustained flight. One stall after takeoff occurred when the canopy came off the airplane at 1000 feet.

Ever heard the expression, when all you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail? Similarly, if the only accident classification you’ve got for events after takeoff is stall, every event after takeoff will become a stall. But just becase a stall occurred after takeoff does not mean that the stall was causal or even that “stall” was an accurate descriptor. It certainly doesn’t mean that all those “stalls” could be remedied in the same way.

Yes, there are stalls after takeoff and in the pattern, but nobody yet has taken the time to classify all these events to appropriately high levels of detail. That analysis will be a major undertaking, and the results will be muddled and confused, but not clear cut.

Ed Wischmeyer
23 replies
  1. Kim Hunter
    Kim Hunter says:

    Ed,

    I think you are right to challenge the wisdom that teaches salvation lies in lowering the nose if you are low, slow, banked and close to the ground. If you are remotely close to normal pattern speed the greater danger may be an inadvertent spiral – even a mild one will wipe away altitude at an alarming rate.

    I also agree that so-called “overshoot recovery” accidents and emergency “turn back” accidents have more in common than is acknowledged.

    Reply
  2. Nicolas George
    Nicolas George says:

    Just here to state the obvious, but better to teach the exercise on an airport with a single runway.
    On parallel runways, I’d still avoid runway overshoot (but with foreplanning, not with a tight turn). ;)

    Reply
  3. Dan Schiffer
    Dan Schiffer says:

    Great article, I appreciate the research you’ve done.

    I believe in the scenarios you’ve included in your article, it could be added to the discussion of overshooting and tight turns to bring plane back to rwy……
    …..at any time you find yourself uncomfortably banked, a lot of back pressure, to slow in a bank…..then simply, unload (unload means go neutral pressure on yoke or stick) and go wings level, then begin a normal climb procedure for a missed approach.

    Reply
  4. Ed
    Ed says:

    Great article with interesting information. Except in the rare occasion of parallel runways, I’ve never panicked if the wind caused me to overshoot a turn to final a bit. In fact my bigger worry – possibly to an extreme – has always been over banking in the pattern and stalling the wing. Accordingly, when I’ve slippwd past the desired Final Approach path I simply do as you described – make my normal rate of turn and if possible use gentle partial s-turn to get lined back up with the runway. If not possible (remember my fear of overbanking) I’d just go around and live to fly another day!

    Reply
    • Walrus
      Walrus says:

      Excellent article. I would add from my own experience, another potential stressor – fear of traffic. I learned at a busy airport and there was always a concern, despite excellent ATC, that you, in your little C172, was potentially clogging up the airport if you “created trouble” by going around. In other words, peer group pressure to do unsafe acts to try and save an unsaveable bad approach to avoid causing problems for bigger or perhaps more important aircraft. Bullying may possibly be an issue as well.

      It is not unusual in summer where I fly for there to be firefighting and medevac aircraft inbound behind you and I have to resist the temptation to hurry.

      Reply
  5. Richard G
    Richard G says:

    Fear of failure…. Base to final crash
    Fear of being caught… IIMC to a 180 crash
    Fear of falling… stall locked arms crash
    Seems like fear is what causes must crashes.
    Fear comes from the unknown.

    Reply
  6. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Assuming no parallel traffic, there is no need for an overshoot to create drama. Accept the overshoot, go around or if sufficient runway or final available, continue a normal turn back to the runway, realign with centerline and land. After a tragic training carrier base turn overshoot mishap (USS Lex, T-2) USN relaxed its dictate that all go arounds be up the left side of tower, while not normal, in extremis they can be directed to take it wide (right) of the tower.

    Another consideration is to correct the events prior that lead to an overshoot…recognize an overshooting crosswind (via AWOS/ATIS, tower, windsock or downwind track) and plan your pattern for it.

    Reply
    • Warren Webb Jr
      Warren Webb Jr says:

      Exactly. I have yet to see an article on overshooting the runway which covers the primary basic problem – poor ground reference skills.

      Reply
  7. Richard Downs
    Richard Downs says:

    I have been doing that for overshoot for years. Works fine. Key is to mentally place a limit on how steep a turn you do on final (mine is 30deg unless I am faster than 90kts then it is 45deg for my A36), if overshoot then just keep the same bank to turn to intercept the desired final course. If I cannot cannot safely get aligned because of distance I go around, but I have never yet had to. Focusing on bank angle limit first and alignment second prevents any mental anguish.

    Reply
    • Marc
      Marc says:

      Great idea Richard! Something easy to remember and allows making a safe tighter than normal turn needed to avoid crossing into a parallel runway.

      Reply
  8. James
    James says:

    I must be doing it wrong. Sure, an unexpectedly high crosswind can push you beyond the runway extended centerline. It happens to me more than I like to admit. I just keep turning the airplane at a normal rate and point it at the end of the runway, now at an angle. Nobody says you have to be right on the extended centerline. When I get to the runway, a gentle turn of a few degrees and I’m aligned.

    The best instruction I ever had was an “EMT” course about thirty years ago. About five hours of Emergency Maneuver Training, about five of basic aerobatics. Boy was I ever impressed with the “turn to final skid-spin” demonstration!! I’ve flown with a few new pilots to help them get over their “nerves,” and I always tell them: “I’m not a flight instructor, but when we are in the pattern, if that ball is not centered, you will hear from me. There is no recovery from a pattern-altitude stall/spin.” So far I’ve stayed alive in nearly forty years of flying.

    Reply
  9. Frank Faludi
    Frank Faludi says:

    I teach flying. My students while they gain experience can occasionally overshoot the centreline. I talk them into realigning without taking heroic measures. If they end up high or misaligned we practise an overshoot. The whole thing is really not a big deal. On the downwind after the touch and go or overshoot I ask the student to analyze what caused the overshooting the centreline and to compensate appropriately. The whole thing before, during and after should be such an anti-climatic thing. I don’t see why people risk killing themselves. Maybe if there is a parallel runway it’s potentially more critical. I don’t know what more there is to be said.

    Reply
    • Frank Faludi
      Frank Faludi says:

      I’m replying to myself because I can’t edit. I forgot to say, keeping the circuit (I’m Canadian) or traffic pattern less tight will allow you to better judge any lead up to an overshooting the centreline and/or more time to compensate for the base to turn final.

      Reply
  10. Jeff G.
    Jeff G. says:

    What is not addressed is why the overshoot to begin with. Basically we are taught downwind, square turn, base, square turn and final square turn. Leaves little to go by as to judge the turns for an inexperienced pilot. This is how I was taught. A few years later I have another CFi taught me incremental turning. Basically a gentle turn from downwind all the way to final. I can then make incremental adjustments to properly align with the runway. The problem with the S turn idea is one if you have parallel runways you may be in trouble, ie the Colorado midair. The other problem, it doesn’t work on a very short runway. Fine if you have 5,000 feet, you may s turn your way back but on 1800 feet I don’t think so. But hey I could be wrong.

    Reply
  11. Cal
    Cal says:

    There are a number of comments about parallel runways and my home airport has parallel runways. But I don’t panic if I’m going to overshoot. First, panic is more likely to kill me. Second, I’d bet almost every parallel runway situation is at a towered airport and I pay attention to the tower and already know if someone is landing on the parallel runway anywhere near me – usually not but it does happen. If there’s nobody there then an overshoot is no big deal. Third, if there was someone near me on the parallel when I was about to overshoot then I’d announce it and do my best to get back *without* too much bank or rudder. However, so far I’ve never had to worry about someone close on the parallel because if there is someone landing on the parallel then I’m even more cautious about winds and turning final just a tad sooner than normal – I’d rather correct an undershoot than an overshoot. I also extend my downwind a bit if it looks like we will end up side-by-side just in case either one of us overshoots. In other words, it’s all about paying attention to what’s going on around me – I believe I’ve heard the term “situational awareness” once or twice. :)

    Reply
  12. Neil Wallace
    Neil Wallace says:

    I am with Rich R fly to the conditions. Where i am based we can get unexpected shear or crosswinds. Learning to fly to the conditions is the norm. It makes sense to realign if safe to do so but i am not sure why the issue of go around appears to be a bit taboo here. I have only had one situation where i was kicked up the rear on final but shear and very quickly went from 250 ft short final to 600ft it. Did cross my mind very briefly , as the author suggests, can i fix this and force it down before running out of runway but then common sense, or great training thanks Sarah, i made the go around decision and call and as suggested by Rich reset the aircraft got back on final, anticipated the shear, and landed centre. I would like to clarify that unlike a lot of your contributors i only fly single engine cessnas so not exactly fast or powerful. One thing in did really like and would love one of you to expand upon were the four scenarios describing the final issues was thought provoking and allowed me to try to picture myself in the situation if one of your instructors would take up the educations of us including pictures to show the actual position of the aircraft, i.e. extra rudder, too much elevator, nose position, i thin it would be an awesome education opportunity.

    Reply
  13. Ed
    Ed says:

    It’s basic pilot skills, look out the window, fly the plane. Every turn in the pattern is simply 1/4th of a turn around a point, something we all were taught to do at some point. Maybe its a matter of application of ground reference maneuvers, rather than performance – or is it that we don’t push ourselves into the corners of the envelope of our aircraft’s performance or our skills as pilots, and so when things “look different” we panic.

    Reply
  14. Roca
    Roca says:

    The military trains for “approach turn stalls” constantly. It’s hammered in to our brains and I think about it every time I feel pressure to tighten the turn from base to final. We do not discuss this enough, and the term “approach turn stall” doesn’t even exist in the GA lexicon. I appreciate this discussion.

    Reply
  15. Gary W. Green
    Gary W. Green says:

    It strikes me that a bit more instruction could help the student (if, a student) prepare mentally and extend his downwind
    slightly if he wishes. Then make two distinct turns prior to starting final descent. Turning, descending, and correcting
    an overshoot all at the same time takes a lot of risky practice.

    Reply
  16. Chris Barker
    Chris Barker says:

    I hope that I’m not being simplistic when I observe that lack of training seems to be the problem here. I was trained with the British military and stalls and spins were taught at a very early stage. The stalls were: clean, approach configuration (some power with landing flap straight) and finals turn (some power, half flap). The aerodynamics behind a stall in the finals turn seem to be pretty straightforward: you reach the critical angle more easily if you’ve already got some turn going (the wings are already loaded) so your stall speed seems to be higher. That hasn’t stopped me getting “on the horn” in a crosswind in an F16 on finals, but then I had less fuel than I should have done and I was pressing on knowing that I was closer to the max AOA.

    Reply

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